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Evidence from Primary Texts

Textual evidence for the study of monasticism at Saint-Jean-des-Vignes includes a rich array of documents. These include, among others, the chapter book, two cartularies (collections of charters), an early modern terrier property register) and early modern histories of Soissons.

The Chapter Book

The chapter book for Saint-Jean-des-Vignes is a compilation of several texts that have evolved individually. The elements of the Saint-Jean chapter book include a liturgical calendar (c. 12 pages), a copy of Saint Augustine’s rule (2 pages), charters (5 pages), customary (52 pages), obituary (340 pages), instructions for novices (30 pages) and ancillary material (20 pages). The chapter book survives in three copies that vary in date and composition. Paris Bibliothèque nationale ms. nal 713 is the most complete. The BnF manuscript preserves a copy of the rule of Saint Augustine and copies of a number of important charters, the obituary, as well as the abbey’s liturgical calendar, other documents and its customs, all in a single volume which we call the chapter book. Another manuscript, Paris Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève ms. 2973 preserves only a seventeenth-century copy of the customs as well as the procedures for the admission of novices. Soissons, Bibliothèque municipale [ Fonds Périn, ms. 4772 ]is a nineteenth-century copy of BnF nal 713.

The authors of this site have also provided a Glossary.

 

Calendar

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The calendar contains the original list of saints and festivals, but with additions from the late medieval and early modern periods.

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Charters

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Three charters important to the community, and attesting to its early foundation, are included in Paris BnF nal 713, the surviving chapter book:  the foundation charter of Henri, bishop of Soissons, and those of Bishop Thibaud and king Philippe I.  Interestingly, the charter of Bishop Henri, chronologically the last of the three, appears first; the other two appear later in the manuscript and are grouped together. It is not known whether this order reflects an earlier, medieval one.

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The Rule of St. Augustine

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As is common in chapter books, Saint-Jean’s contains a copy of the rule of Saint Augustine, the rule adopted by the community at its foundation. Written in the 5th century, the Rule is one of the earliest guides to religious life. A short document, it is divided into 8 sections.

The title, Rule of Saint Augustine, has in fact been applied to each of the following documents: a letter (# 211) written by St. Augustine to the nuns at Hippo in A.D. 423, and to two of his sermons, numbers 355 and 356.

The letter written by St. Augustine to the nuns at Hippo (423) for the purpose of restoring harmony in their community, deals with the reform of certain aspects of monasticism. This document contains no clear, minute prescriptions as are found in the Benedictine Rule. In his sermons 355 and 356, Augustine discusses the monastic observance of the vow of poverty, and emphasizes the role of communal sharing.

The version of the Rule found in the chapter book of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes consists of a copy of Augustine’s letter (#211), with interpolations, and a modified version of an ordo, the entire text being a later compilation. The mention of the Rule of Saint Augustine in Saint-Jean’s foundation charter is one of the earliest mentions of the rule to survive.

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Customary

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An important part of our understanding of abbey ritual is based on the customary portion of the chapter book. A customary is essentially a manual for monasteric life and practice. While customaries are notoriously laconic, they often yield the most precise written information available about movements and actions undertaken by a particular community at various times of the day and year. The customary for Saint-Jean provides “job descriptions” for the major abbey officers, and describes summarily many daily liturgical procedures such as chapter meeting, meals, processions, and even visits to the abbey necessarium or toilet block. Saint-Jean’s customary is sufficiently precise to allow us to understand much of what went on in important spaces of the abbey, as well as to infer meaning from the combined weight of textual and material evidence.

Saint-Jean is rare in that it preserves not only a wealth of standing and excavated architecture, but its customary as well. Saint-Jean-des-Vignes thus preserves "text and image" from the middle ages. The customary and architectural remains constitute parallel forms of evidence that may, in fact, have been created for each other. The earliest customs for Saint-Jean-des-Vignes seem to have been codified during the second decade of the new abbey’s existence. Although they do not survive in their original form, the customs were confirmed in 1089, in a bull issued by Pope Urban II. They were revised in the first half of the fourteenth century, probably as a direct result of the reconstruction of the abbey at that time.

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Obituary

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The obituary probably results from the combination of two manuscripts into a third: a first one that became “full” and a second continuation. This new manuscript, compiled about 1580, continued to be used until c. 1790 when the community dispersed. The obituary text survives in a single copy that forms part of Paris BnF, nal 713. Obituaries are essentially lists of deceased members of a monastic community, recorded by the day within the month of their demise so that they (and their gifts) might be commemorated by the living community. (Death years are seldom recorded before the later sixteenth century.) The presence of personal names, linked to place names and properties provides a very rich source for information on the social fabric of the abbey, on its regional history and on its family connections. Our obituary is one of the relatively rare examples to survive in a complete state, including entries from the foundation of the monastery in 1076 to dated entries from just before the French Revolution.

The obituary is not a registry of property — although some, typically early, gifts of land are included — rather it lists gifts of cash and kind. Many of these gifts can be dated by identifying the donor and located by identifying his place of origin. Cognomens provide the fullest information about the abbey’s context in the medieval and early modern landscape. Most individuals bear names such as Simon of Bucy, or Miles Tonnelier of Vendières, telling us where such individuals lived, or at least where their families originated. Because of our previous work on the abbey’s cartularies (collections of charters recording gifts, sales and purchases of land to the abbey), we can localize the majority of such cognomens, thus providing a map of the patronage of the monastic community.

Some of the individuals named in the obituary occur as witnesses in the cartularies as well. This provides information on the dates of their activity. In most published monastic obituaries, only the elite (kings, queens, popes, bishops) are identified and dated. Our approach has allowed us to identify nearly 30% of all names, including some of those drawn from more modest levels of medieval and early modern society. Not surprisingly, the majority of bourgeois donors to the monastery come from the town of Soissons and its immediate faubourgs, whereas noble donors are much more widely distributed across the rural landscape. The obituary also provides information on types of gifts made to the community, linking material culture to social history.

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Procedures for Novices and Concluding Material

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The chapter book also contains regulations and instructions for the novices admitted into the community of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes.  In 1197, at the request of abbot Pierre II, Pope Celestine III fixed the minimum age for reception of novices at 15. The text for the novices appears twice in Paris BnF nal 713, a repetition that we suspect reflects changes to practice made during the Catholic Reformation.

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Glossary

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The glossary was produced as part of our research into the customary and obituary portions of the chapter book. It provides definitions and contextual discussions for terms relating to the social hierarchy of the abbey, food, clothing, feast days, liturgy, units of money, land measures and types of gifts to the abbey.

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